A teenage thief with an uncertain future

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Occasionally a dip into the Police Courts reveals an individual that we can trace using some of the existing historical databases for the history of crime. When that coincides with a topic I have been teaching in the same week it is all the more interesting.

My second year students at the University of Northampton have been studying historical attitudes towards juvenile crime and seeing how these developed throughout the period from the mid 1700s to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1908. We’ve looked at the beginnings of attempts at intervention (such as the Marine Society) and at the coming of Reformatories and Industrial schools. These aimed (as the name suggests) at the rehabilitation and education of young people (even if they often failed to live up to Mary Carpenter’s vision). However, parallel institutions  (such as the hulks and then Parkhurst Prison) continued to offer a  more punitive form of penal policy.

In February 1842 (a few years before legislation was passed that created Reformatories or gave magistrates formal powers to deal with most juvenile crime) Sarah Watson appeared before Mr Greenwood at Clerkenwell Police Court. Sarah was 14 years old and so, from the 1850s onwards, would have been a suitable example for summary trial and punishment.

She was accused by a Bloomsbury grocer of stealing  the not inconsiderable sum of £8 in cash. Mr John Wilkinson (of 18 Broad Street) testified that the young girl had entered his shop and asked for ‘an ounce of cocoa and some sugar’. As his assistant had turned to fulfil her order Sarah somehow managed to steal a packet on the counter that contained a number of coins from that day’s taking.

The shop worker realised  immediately that the packet was missing and, since she was the only customer in the shop at the time, he grabbed the child and found the property on her.

She was caught red handed and there was seemingly little or no allowance for the fact she was so young. The age of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth century was just 7. Up until 14 there was an understanding in law that the court should determine that the offender was able to understand that what they were accused of doing was wrong (the principal of doli incapax) but there seems to have been little doubt in Sarah’s case. Now of course a child of 14 would not face a magistrate’s hearing or a full blown jury trial but this was 1842 not 2018. Sarah offered no defence and the magistrate committed her for trial and locked her up in the meantime.

Just over two weeks later Sarah was formally tried at the Old Bailey. The court was told that the packet she lifted from the counter contained ‘3 sovereigns, 8 half-sovereigns, 4 half-crowns, 18 shillings, 9 sixpences, and 5 groats’. The evidence differed slightly from that offered at Clerkenwell as Mr Wilkinson’s shopman said that there were actually two other female customers in the shop at the time. He also stated that Sarah had tucked the packet under her dress concealed in her waist band, which made it seem clear to the listening jurors that her actions were intentional.

It seems a plausible story and it convinced the jury. Rather than an innocent child Sarah came across as a cunning and practised thief, who fitted the stereotype of the Victorian juvenile delinquent as characterised by the Artful Dodger and his chums in Oliver Twist. The policeman that processed her told the court that Sarah had been in and out of the workhouse, had been previously prosecuted for begging and sometimes maintained herself by selling matches. As a street urchin, with no family to speak off and a pattern of criminal behaviour, things didn’t look good for Sarah.

Nevertheless she was only 14 and the judge respited sentence on her while he decided what punishment was appropriate. At this this point she might have disappeared from the available historical record, at least the easily available one. But the the new Digital Panopticon website allows us to pick up her story if only in a limited way.

Sarah’s immediate fate is far from clear; she may have been imprisoned or even transported (although I think the latter is unlikely from the sources we have). We do know however that at some point in her life she left London and moved north, to Cumbria. Maybe this was escape of sorts, leaving the capital to find a better life. Maybe at some point she married; I doubt she was sent north by the penal system.

Whatever the reason Sarah appears for the last time in any official records in 1886 in Whitehaven, where she is listed in the death register. She was 58 years old. What happened in those intervening 44 years? Did her brush with the Old Bailey court serve as a deterrent to future offending? Like so many of the characters that pass through the police courts of Victorian London sarah Watson remains an enigma, only briefly surfacing to leave her mark on the historical record.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 10, 1842]

‘Mischievous’ or ‘evil’? An 11 year-old before the Guildhall Police Court

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In the nineteenth century the age of criminal responsibility was just 7 (today it is 10). It had been set at 7 for centuries and was not raised (to 8) until 1933. However, there was an understanding in law that while a 7 year-old could be tried for a crime the courts had to prove (up until the age of 14) that the child understood that what they had done was serious and not merely ‘mischievous’. This principle in law is termed doli incapax and in the wake of the murder of James Bulger in 1993 the Labour government abolished it.

Not only was it harder to prove that a child had committed an offence under the age of 14 it was also difficult to build a case if that was based on the evidence of children as well. There seems to have been no restrictions on children giving evidence or being cross-examined but in many historical cases where young people appear at the Old Bailey the court asks them to declare that they understand the consequences of lying on oath. This was not something that adult witnesses were asked to affirm.

Today child witnesses are protected in court and often give their testimony behind a screen or via a video link. The latter was not available in the 1800s of course, but in this case we do get a sense of the courts recognising the need to shield young victims and witnesses from the harsh reality of the operation of the criminal law, or at least a recognition that any testimony they gave might be suspect.

In May 1839 William Henry Browning, a child of 11 years of age, was brought up again at the Guildhall Police Court. He had appeared there at least one before in the past few days, on a charge of trying to kill an infant boy.

Two smaller boys appeared to give evidence against him. One was the victim, a three year-old, the other his older brother who was 5 or 6. They made a statement to the effect that William had placed a rope around the younger boy’s neck, ‘pulled him down, and then loosened the cord and ran away’.

The child still bore the marks of the attack, which revealed that ‘some force’ had been used and the court was told that ‘the little fellow had been in considerable danger of being choked’.

No adult seemed to have witnessed the event but a couple of women (including the victim’s mother, a Mrs Birbeck) turned up to testify that William was a naughty child. He had apparently been ‘saucy’ to Mrs Birbeck and her servant, and threatened to break her windows. She also accused him attempting to steal her chickens.

The boy’s father appeared to make a counter complaint about Mrs Birbeck for accusing his child of theft and attempted murder, and picking on him unfairly. He added that his family were in desperate circumstances, which may have affected the boy’s mental health, and this may explain his son’s erratic behaviour:

Mr Browning, a shoemaker, was ‘in very ill-health’. His son had ‘not been out of his sight for above half an hour, and he complained of Mrs Birbeck having given the boy into custody. instead of bringing him home to be corrected. A reverse of fortune, and the loss of his wife, obliged him to live in this low neighbourhood, and he should be glad if the alderman would get the boy into some asylum’.

Alderman White, the presiding magistrate at Guildhall Police Court, rather unnecessarily conceded that ‘the mother very naturally felt some exasperation’ when she saw that her little boy had nearly been strangled, but it was going to be hard to prove it in court. Mr White told her that he had to consider the ‘tender age of the accused as well as the two witnesses’. Turning to Mr Browning however, he added that the boy could not be let off scot free. Instead of sending him to an ‘asylum’ (whether the shoemaker meant this literally or not) he was going to send him to prison for a short, sharp, shock.

William was sent down for 14 days ‘lest impunity should encourage repetition’.

At 11 years of age William Browning was just a year older than Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger (who was 2).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 23, 1839]